Updated: December 27, 2011 at 12:00 am
WASHINGTON – Air Force’s Falcons stumbled through a disappointing football season, confusing their fans, their coaches and themselves during an underachieving 2011.
Wednesday, in the twilight of the year, the Falcons will put a happy face on the bad times. They arrive at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium surrounded by doubts and memories of frustration.
The frustration will ease. I believe the Falcons will defeat the Toledo Rockets in the Military Bowl. My prediction is Air Force 28, Toledo 24.
Sure, there are dozens of reasons to be skeptical of the Falcons.
They were stomped by Notre Dame and TCU. They were lucky to defeat Navy and Army. They found ways to lose at home to San Diego State and Wyoming. Their seven wins came over teams with a combined 23-54 record.
But this team’s potential remains strong. Yes, the Falcons have often offered superb imitations of a weak team this season, but the talent is abundant. Everything is in place for a mild upset.
Toledo is a slight favorite, which makes sense. The Rockets have scored more than 40 points seven times and more than 50 points four times. They are jammed with offensive might and will be facing an Air Force defense that has surrendered more than 30 points five times. Wide receiver Eric Page caught 112 passes this season. That’s two more than the Falcons' entire receiving corps.
Let’s be clear:
The potential is there for a Toledo rout.
This game reminds me of the 2009 Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. The Falcons crawled into that game with a 7-5 record, same as this season, and the realization they should have won more games.
In 2009, BYU’s Mad Max Hall bombarded the Falcons in the final game of the season, and Houston’s magnificent passing attack looked ready to pulverize Air Force’s highly questionable defense.
In the finest moment of the Troy Calhoun era, the Falcons dominated Houston, 47-20. Air Force rushed for 402 yards and intercepted Case Keenum six times. In one afternoon, they buried the sorrows of a season.
For the past month, Air Force seniors have been itching for their final chance. In August, many of the Falcons talked openly about their high ambitions for this season. A few even talked about a perfect record.
This was supposed to be the strongest Air Force team since 1998, when the Falcons won 12 games. All the pieces seemed to be there, and a friendly schedule offered the chance for at least nine victories.
Injuries and a puzzling lack of focus and fire in the clutch crippled the team, but there were glimpses of the season that should have been. In the first three quarters at Navy, Air Force was utterly dominating and looked ready to humiliate the Midshipmen. This was the team we should have watched the entire season.
This is the team we will watch Wednesday.
Seniors Jon Davis, Tim Jefferson, Jonathan Warzeka are too proud – and too talented – for a quiet end to their Air Force careers. This bowl game offers them and their teammates a chance to show fans, and themselves, the team that might have been.
All season, coach Troy Calhoun has talked about how much he admires and enjoys this team. At times, Calhoun's stubborn allegiance seems a little strange. He sits in front of reporters after a painful defeat and turns the discussion to his team’s unbending dedication.
And yet …
I understand where he’s coming from. After the loss at Notre Dame, members of Air Force’s defense had every reason to hide behind excuses. The defensive line had been ravaged by injuries, forcing the team to limp into the game with a severely undersized, tattered defensive front.
But no one did any hiding. Davis and Alex Means and Anthony Wright Jr. answered every question. They described their effort as unacceptable, inexcusable, humiliating.
They said better days were ahead. Good times, they promised, were just around the bend.
Wednesday is the day they were talking about. For most of 2011, the Falcons were a good team gone inexplicably bad. The confusion ends today. It’s late, but not too late.
I believe Air Force will defeat Toledo.